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Storytelling for fundraising: An overview and 4 essentials

May 20, 2022
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Everyone loves a good story. Novels, movies, television series, and other storytelling formats capture our interest and engage our emotions in ways that simple facts can’t do on their own.

But authors and screenwriters aren’t the only ones who tell stories. Nonprofit organizations like yours can employ storytelling techniques to inspire supporters to take action, thereby boosting your fundraising efforts

To help you get started, we’ll provide an overview of nonprofit storytelling and examine four essential elements of storytelling for fundraising.

Why is storytelling important for fundraising?

Stories are at the core of everything your nonprofit does. Your nonprofit’s purpose and daily efforts form the story of your organization—you saw a need and are working to address it. You can also share details about your nonprofit’s recent achievements and impact using storytelling techniques to appeal to your supporters.

Effective nonprofit storytelling can:

  • Inspire donors and volunteers to contribute their finances and time.
  • Motivate your staff and board members to continue working toward organizational goals.
  • Rally support for advocacy efforts.
  • Spread the word about your nonprofit’s purpose in the community.
  • Secure corporate sponsorships.

Most importantly, a strong narrative inspires empathy and brings people together around a common goal, which is key to building long-term support for your cause.

4 essential strategies of storytelling for fundraising

To take your nonprofit storytelling from good to great, first consider the way stories are told in movies, television series, and novels. Their essential story elements also apply to storytelling for fundraising, although your organization will approach storytelling somewhat differently. Let’s walk through four nonprofit storytelling strategies in more detail.

1. Choose a compelling main character

Inspiring action through storytelling requires that you choose a main character (or protagonist) that your audience can connect with emotionally. 

In the past, many nonprofits would center their stories on a current supporter to encourage prospective donors put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. However, it has become more common to feature one of your organization’s beneficiaries as the main character because these stories pull at readers’ heartstrings. 

For instance, a story about a donor who feels fulfilled and receives a free T-shirt after donating to an animal shelter might be relatable for some readers who have already considered the benefits of contributing to a nonprofit. But a story about an abandoned dog finding a loving home after receiving care at the shelter invites a stronger emotional response. New and existing supporters alike will want to get involved so the shelter can rescue more pets in need.

Most of your nonprofit’s stories need to be short to fit into a few paragraphs of an email newsletter or a social media post, so choose one main character for each story. Doing so also personalizes the story to further inspire your audience.

2. Tell the story from start to finish

Every main character on the page or screen has two things in common: a desire for something they don’t have and a conflict that stands in the way of fulfilling that desire. The beginning of a story introduces the main character, desire, and conflict. The character works to overcome the conflict in the middle, and at the end, the audience finds out whether the character achieves their desire.

Nonprofit storytelling works the same way. It’s tempting to skip to the end of the story to focus on your organization's success, but your audience needs to know the beginning to understand the need you’re addressing and the middle to get emotionally invested in the outcome.

To return to the animal shelter example, rather than beginning the story with the dog’s successful adoption, it should start with why the dog was brought to the shelter to set up its desire for a new home. Then, the story could detail what type of care the dog received at the shelter to help it overcome obstacles before finally being adopted. This setup leaves readers feeling hopeful about the dog’s future and helps them understand the shelter’s purpose more clearly.

When reading over a story you’ve written for fundraising purposes, think about whether it would make sense if it were a movie—if it does, you’ve told the story from start to finish.

3. Support your story with data and visuals

Although storytelling is more compelling than facts alone, grounding stories in nonprofit data makes the strongest case for fundraising support.  For the animal shelter in the previous example, a one-off story about a rescued dog helps supporters connect emotionally with the organization's purpose. But pairing that story with a relevant data point, like the fact that the dog was just one of 200 pets adopted from that shelter in the past year, shows that the nonprofit is both inspirational and reliable.

Visuals also strengthen storytelling for fundraising because they help your audience see how your story fits into the bigger picture of your organization’s purpose. For instance, that animal shelter could include before and after photos of the dog to illustrate how the shelter’s care helped it to be happy and healthy upon adoption. If your story includes more concrete data, you could create an accompanying chart or graph displaying the numbers in an easy-to-understand format.

4. Include a call to action

In many cases, your nonprofit will tell stories as part of a broader appeal for support.  Including a call to action at the end of your story provides direction for audience members to get involved in the way that’s most helpful to your nonprofit.

Ensure your call to action begins with a verb and directly empowers your audience to take the next step, such as:

  • Donate now
  • Contact us
  • Visit this link to learn more
  • Sign up to volunteer
  • Register for this event

If you tell a story through digital channels like email marketing or social media, direct your audience to a relevant link. In print media, such as flyers or direct mail, include an easy-to-type URL or QR code alongside your call to action to encourage supporters to take that next step.

Tell your nonprofit's story to fundraise

Powerful narratives are the foundation of successful nonprofit fundraising. Use the strategies in this guide to get started with storytelling for fundraising, and consider asking for feedback from your staff and supporters to help you improve your stories over time.

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